Who can we hate?

There’s a lot of discussion in the Guardian at the moment about the government’s proposed law against inciting religious hatred. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,2763,1510829,00.html, and links from that. This is a difficult one for UK liberals, as it balances their frequent dislike (or even hatred) for religion against the protection of minorities. Unlike in the US, there isn’t a tradition of unlimited free speech: incitement to racial hatred is already a crime. The argument that most liberals who oppose the law seem to be making (as well as disproportion) is that people are not free to choose their race, but they are free to choose their religion and thus can be validly criticised (and indeed hated) for this. The problem with this view is seen by considering the following statements of hatred:

1) Jews are the scum of the earth and should all be shot.
2) Muslims are the scum of the earth and should all be shot.
3) Orthodox Jews are the scum of the earth and should all be shot.
4) Zionists are the scum of the earth and should all be shot.
5) Gays are the scum of the earth and should all be shot.

According to the ‘choice’ view, only statement 1 should be banned, and the other statements are presumably seen as acceptable criticism. Statements 2 and 3 are about chosen religion and so acceptable. Statement 4 is about chosen political views and so acceptable. The tricky one is statement 5. According to the choice theory, unless you can prove that sexual orientation is innate and unchangeable, it’s OK to hate people who have chosen to live a gay lifestyle. I’m sure that’s not what many liberals want, but that’s the logic of this argument.

To complicate this matter further, statements 3 and 4 would probably already fall foul of the current laws against racial hatred, since Jews (and Sikhs, but not Muslims) are seen as members of a racial group. In practice, it seems clear that what a number of liberals (and some libertarian right-wingers) are fighting for is the right to offend Muslims: whenever they get to specific examples of statements they fear would be banned, it’s always Islam they want to criticise, often in the most extreme ways. (They are used to being able to hate Christianity and Christian denominations, and this is largely tolerated by the churches.)

I’m in favour of the law at the moment, since I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument against it, and it does seem to be needed. But it does raise a more difficult general question: Who is it OK to hate and why?


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